IONS Library

Publications Book Reviews

The Compassionate Brain

The Compassionate Brain

How Empathy Creates Intelligence

by Gerald Hüther

  • Reviewed by Dean Radin, PhD on Sept. 1, 2006

    Depending on your mood, you will find Gerald Hüther’s short (150-page) book either oddly optimistic or oddly pessimistic. The Compassionate Brain presents three essential themes: First, the brain is an incredibly compliant and adaptable information-processing organ; second, its varied adaptations are stimulated by both environmental influences and internal needs; and third, it is never too late to change the programming. Hüther doesn’t discount that the subjective mind may be more than brain processing, but to maintain a concise discussion, his book concentrates on the brain.

    The Compassionate Brainis structured in the form of a user’s manual—one for the brain—with clever and appropriate titles such as, “Removing the Packing and Protective Materials,” “Options for Assembly,” and “Advice about Installations Already in Place.” Much of the book follows perspectives from developmental biology and neuroscience on how simple organisms, from bacteria to bugs, evolved the way they did. This well-written background leads to a lucid explanation for why humans behave the way we do. The optimistic message is that neuroscience does shed light on what sort of brains produce optimal personal and societal functioning—and what we need to do to get those brains. The pessimistic message, though, is that the same knowledge also helps to explain why the world of human affairs is in a sorry state—and worse, why things are unlikely to improve without the experience of significant trauma.

    What is the optimal brain? Hüther suggests that the more sensitive, intellectually and emotionally intelligent brain is associated with behaviors such as sensibleness, humility, prudence, truthfulness, reliability, and courtesy. Achieving these states is not accomplished solely by oneself, but rather through open, expansive connections to others, as well as a fortunate early childhood environment. Hüther makes a credible case for this thesis, concluding that “a person who wishes to use his brain in the most comprehensive manner must learn to love.” Such people will be curious about the world, empathic, grateful, and take great pleasure in the world’s diversities.

    In the last chapter, “What to Do in Case of Malfunction,” we learn that all is not goodness and light, for there are many forms of brain malfunctioning generated by early experiences and, regrettably, mindlessly sustained by society. These include self-centeredness, chronically aggressive behavior, blind acceptance of authority, rationalized terrorism, mindless pollution of the environment, and so on. Such people can live long, reasonably comfortable lives, which raises an important question: Why, if evolution is pushing us toward greater levels of development and enlightenment, do so many people end up on what amounts to a devolutionary path? Consider, for example, the continuing popularity of gas-guzzling vanity cars (like the Hummer) or the current epidemic of obesity.

    One major consequence of self-centered devolution is that the fabric of society becomes increasingly fragile and brittle. Most disturbingly, as indications of a collapse increase, only a few pay attention because society as a whole is numb to the warning signs. Escaping from this depressing scenario will, according to Hüther, require enough members of society to recognize that something is seriously amiss. Each must feel a deep personal sense of concern, so that together we can agree on where we want to go in the future. The encouraging conclusion is that this hopeful path is achievable because our brains—and bodies—are exquisitely malleable and can adapt even to radically new necessities. We just have to want to change desperately enough—or the world will force it upon us.

    Review published in Shift magazine

brain, compassion, humanity
  • Bookmark and Share

Stay in touch with IONS